With padded glove and penitent heart, Kevin Brown takes the mound for the New York Yankees this afternoon for the first time since he fractured his left (nonpitching) hand in a fit of pique after his last start, more than three weeks ago.
Brown may never be fully forgiven by Yankees management or his teammates for losing his head at a time when the Yankees could ill afford to lose his right arm. But his stay in purgatory will be shortened dramatically if he can demonstrate over the next week that manager Joe Torre can count on him in October.
It seems ludicrous that a team on its way to 100 wins is dependent on a 39-year-old pitcher of occasionally unsound mind and frequently broken-down body -- 44 games missed this season because of an intestinal parasite and lower back problems, even before he had surgery in which pins were placed in his hand to repair the fractures caused by his TKO by a clubhouse wall.
But after watching another meltdown last night by Javier Vazquez, the man who was given a four-year, $45 million deal to inherit Roger Clemens's spot in the Bombers' rotation after Theo Epstein kept Curt Schilling out of pinstripes, and another in a series of mishaps by Yankee relievers not named Tom Gordon or Mariano Rivera, it's obvious that the Yankees, 12-5 losers to the Red Sox last night, will need more than just a cameo appearance from Brown in the postseason.
Vazquez (14-10), who gave back two leads to the Sox last night and left after the Sox broke a 3-all tie with four hits and two runs in the fifth, is just 4-5 with a staggering 7.06 ERA since the All-Star break, and after being taken deep by Doug Mirabelli in the fourth has allowed a dozen home runs in just 72 2/3 innings since the break. He has won just once in his last eight starts, and last night was the fourth time since the break that he has failed to pitch at least five innings.
With just one start left to convince the Yankees of his utility, Vazquez may have pitched himself out of the postseason rotation, especially if Brown can demonstrate an ability to join Mike Mussina, Jon Lieber, and Orlando Hernandez in starting slots. Some poor Yankee Stadium elevator operator or parking lot attendant almost certainly is fated to lose his job, such will be George Steinbrenner's wrath if the supposed prize of the Yankees' winter proves a bust in autumn.
"Vazquez concerns me, no question," Torre said last night. "I know he's better than this. He knows he's better than this. We have to settle this because I want him to be a part of this.
"He's got too much going for him -- ability, courage, all that stuff -- he's got to get out of this."
Vazquez's problems, Torre insisted, are more mental than physical. Veteran Yankee observers wonder if Vazquez, whose success came in Montreal, may be the 2004 version of Ed Whitson, a small-market pitcher who wears pinstripes like a strait jacket.
"I have a sense that sometimes he goes out there and has too many things on his mind," Torre said. "He tends to overthink."
What hurt Vazquez most was the fourth, Torre said, when he issued a one-out walk to Kevin Millar and one out later gave up a home run to dead-center field by Mirabelli, fast becoming the Johnny Bench of backup catchers.
"Tonight, one inning was killer," Torre said. "He walks Millar and Mirabelli hits a two-run home run. He's got to make better pitches."
That inning spelled Vazquez's demise. The Yanks were finally done in a little later, in the eighth, when the bullpen was tagged for seven runs to break a 5-all tie. The primary victim was Paul Quantrill, the former Sox middling reliever whose Eveready battery may finally be wearing down from years of constant use: Quantrill has a 7.23 ERA since the break, allowing a staggering 58 hits and nine walks in just 37 1/3 innings. Given his other options -- Tanyon Sturtze (6.17 ERA since the break, despite two terrific outings in a week's time against the Sox), C.J. Nitkowski (9.00 ERA this season), Felix Heredia (7.71 ERA since the break) -- Torre's choices in crunch time may be much like what he opted to do Friday night, trying to get by with just Gordon and closer Mariano Rivera from the seventh inning on.
A Brown who can give them six innings would be a big boost.
"He's chomping at the bit, no question," Torre said. "We don't know how long he'll pitch. Three innings, four innings. His arm is fine. He's thrown four or five times."
And yesterday, a new glove designed to protect his hand arrived and was given a vigorous workout by pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who hit numerous fungoes to Brown.
"I felt pretty confident that I'd be able to catch the ball and pitch," Brown told reporters afterward. "The good thing about this is I get a chance to get my feet wet before playoffs."